From JDSupra: “We need a sidewalk” – strategy is the ultimate reminder of why we do what we do

A little change of pace. Thanks to Adrian Lurssen for publishing my essay “’We need a sidewalk’ – strategy is the ultimate reminder of why we do what we do” as part of JDSupra’s Marketing Perspectives: The Inside Story series.

Here’s an excerpt:

Shortly after Disneyland opened its magical gates to the public for the first time, panicked groundskeepers reportedly approached Walt Disney all in a dither. Their concern? Patrons without fail tromped through one particular flower bed on their giddy sojourn from Main Street to Tomorrowland. The gardeners’ solution? Erect a decorative-but-impenetrable fence to protect the landscaping and redirect the crowds.

Uncle Walt’s response? “We don’t need a fence there. We need a sidewalk.”

I suspect we’ve all worked alongside colleagues like these well-meaning but misguided caretakers. Heck, you may find yourself being one of these obstructionist types, thinking the silo you inhabit needs defending at all costs. And that is the genius in Walt Disney’s response. In one deftly pragmatic, folksy, customer-centric quip, he reminded his staff that the turf isn’t theirs to defend; it belongs squarely to the market forces they are there to serve.

You can read the rest herehttp://www.jdsupra.com/legalnews/we-need-a-sidewalk-strategy-is-the-98731/

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And thanks to Nancy Myrland of Myrland Marketing for including my musings regarding conference prep here: http://www.myrlandmarketing.com/2017/03/lma17-conference-networking-tips-from-our-friends/

“Use social media actively leading up to (and following) to get to know the attendees and any issues that are pressing/trending. Engage with them virtually – comment and reciprocate. When you arrive, make a point to connect with those whose experiences and views you have found interesting. Spend time between sessions in conversation with those folks, genuinely learning about their interests and their careers. And be sincere and humane. The worst feeling is when you’re talking to someone, and you get the vibe they are waiting for someone seemingly ‘more important’ to enter the frame. Your best (lifelong) business contacts will start from kinship, not opportunism.”

Thanks, Nancy! Appreciate you helping me represent … virtually. Have a marvelous time at #LMA17. I’m there in spirit! Love you and the whole #LMAMkt family .

Nancy writes: “#LMA17 Networking Tip #12 is from @roysexton – More: http://bit.ly/2nXm0A6 Thanks Roy! We miss you & wish you were here.” pic.twitter.com/TfXFrrAOBe

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Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital).

In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.

My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

“Feed the right wolf.” Disney’s Tomorrowland (2015 film)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

“Find the ones who haven’t given up. They are the future.” So says George Clooney at the end of Brad Bird’s latest Disney offering Tomorrowland, inspired as much by Disney’s ubiquitous theme parks (from which it derives its inspiration) as it does Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and … Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth.

In fact, this may be the first children’s film that directly addresses – so darkly, so interestingly, so strangely – global warming among other mankind-created global calamities. I can’t recall the last kiddie flick that depicted so darn many mushroom clouds, or had such a nihilistic sentiment at its gooey center. Good for Brad Bird.

Clearly a passion project for the director, the film suffers, alas, from a narrative lumpiness. It is composed almost like a junior novella, with very abrupt chapter breaks, and an unclear sense of the overall purpose until the crackerjack final act.

Regardless, the journey is an entertaining and worthwhile one, at least philosophically. As I find myself personally at a crossroads in life – looking back at what erroneously seemed an idyllic small-town, all-American way-of-life and now dreaming of a much-needed present/future state when we all can embrace empathy, kindness, and love, regardless our geographically defined boundaries – the film hit a raw nerve for me.

Ostensibly, the film is about Britt Robertson’s Casey Newton, a young, overeager space-loving kid horrified that America has given up on all dreams of galactic exploration. Casey discovers a magic pin that gives her glimpses of a sparkling utopia where we all live hand-in-hand, driving electric cars, zipping to-and-fro in bullet shaped sky-trains, and all wearing flowing garb designed in collaboration between Vera Wang and Judy Jetson (?). (Oh, and everybody in the future is fit. No fast food, no gluten, and, yeah, I bet vegan. Go figure.)

In truth? The film is really about George Clooney’s Frank Walker, a bright-eyed young boy born of nuclear optimism now a middle-aged sot calcified by millennial atrophy. He sees a world that he hoped would be (pushed to be), its limitless potential now squandered by petty greed and intentional hate. The classic baby boomer dilemma.

Casey sparks a reluctant optimism in Frank, as they meet cute, amidst a gaggle of murderous robots blowing up Frank’s steampunk farmhouse. They travel to Tomorrowland in hopes of preventing global catastrophe. Tomorrowland, you see, is an alternate dimension designed as a free-thinking societal construct, intended to gather humanity’s best and brightest in order to effect great change, but now turned to seed. Hugh Laurie, all glowering smarm, is its chief magistrate.

Robertson, who unfortunately has the acting range of a peanut, mugs and screams shamelessly, but Clooney with his oily charm is the perfect antidote. It takes quite a bit of screen time for him to finally emerge, but when he does the film starts firing on all cylinders.

Tomorrowland (the place … in the film) is a marvel of design, taking many cues from but never limited by the aesthetic of Disney’s theme park Tomorrowland(s) as well as the original designs for EPCOT – all swooping spirals, glittering towers, and burnished concrete.

As I understand it, Walt Disney and Ray Bradbury were pals, and they and their creative legacies share a similar take on the “future,” a concept as nebulous as it is thrilling. For these mid-century marvels, the future is a pearly veneer with a toxic venom ever curdling underneath. Both men telegraphed a healthy agnosticism and distrust of humanity – see Bambi, for one – with a deep desire to see us collectively rise above our own insularity and self-absorption … once and for all. Fat chance.

Brad Bird does a fine job capturing and forwarding this idea in Tomorrowland. The film is not perfect, a bit tedious at times, but it is a worthwhile summer blockbuster exercise in challenging how stunted we have become. At one point Casey says something to this effect: “There are two wolves. One bright and hopeful and one dark and cynical. Which wolf wins? Whichever one you feed. Feed the right wolf.”

Feed the right wolf.

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Reel Roy Reviews 2

Reel Roy Reviews 2

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital) In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

San Diego, Part the First: #LMA15 (as in Legal Marketing Association!)

My fellow panelists

My fellow panelists Heather, Megan, Gina

A week or so ago, I shared this wonderful coverage from my hometown and from The Legal News of an upcoming speaking engagement at the Legal Marketing Association’s national conference.

Well, mission accomplished!

My fellow panelists Gina Rubel of Furia Rubel (Philadelphia), Heather Morse Geller of Greenberg Glusker Fields Claman & Machtinger (Los Angeles), and Megan McKeon of Katten Muchin Rosenman (Chicago) and I were ecstatic by the response to our presentation. (And, yes, I did launch things with a Shakespearean monologue – Duke Senior from As You Like It to be exact. My poor colleagues who endure my shenanigans …)

LexBlog posted this summary (here) of our presentation “Collaboration and coexistence among barristers and ‘baristas'” – including tweets from audience members (and panelists) summarizing key points.

Me with Gail, Josh, Laura, Lindsay, Nancy

Me with Gail, Josh, Laura, Lindsay, Nancy

Gina added “10 post-event tips to get the most out of conference attendance” here at her marvelous The PR Lawyer blog.

Heather offered a more existential take in “The spirit and energy that connects us all” at her fabulous Legal Watercooler here.

Just for fun, click here for Lindsay Griffiths‘ media montage of the great #lma15selfie experiment! Lindsay (International Lawyers Network) also wrote an excellent piece regarding the LMA General Counsel panel here at her blog Zen & the Art of Legal Marketing.

For you tweeters out there, be sure to follow Gail Lamarche (Henderson Franklin), Laura Toledo (Nilan Johnson Lewis; blog: The Legal Shakeup), and Lance Godard (Fisher & Phillips) … among a whole bunch of other wonderful people I’ve now left out. I should never start these lists …

How many marketers fit in an elevator?

How many marketers fit in an elevator?

I know this is a strange collection of content for my blog that usually focuses on movies and culture and rampant silliness, but I thought you might enjoy seeing a glimpse into my daily life. Many of you readers are social media mavens so this information may be helpful in a variety of ways.

(And don’t worry – the second installment in a few days will be all about the San Diego Zoo, Jimmy Kimmel Live, Hollywood, Disneyland, and the seals of La Jolla. I live to be a tacky tourist. You can get a photographic preview here.)

Finally, what follows is a piece I wrote for LMA about another conference panel “Control your online reputation and image,” presented by the talented duo of Nancy Myrland (Myrland Marketing) and Amy Deschodt (Weil). (Nancy’s blog the Myrland Marketing Minute can be found here.) Enjoy!

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Nancy Myrland and Amy Deschodt (Photo tweeted by Cheryl Bame)

Nancy Myrland and Amy Deschodt (Photo tweeted by Cheryl Bame)

“When written in Chinese, the word ‘crisis’ is composed of two characters. One represents danger and the other represents opportunity.” – John F. Kennedy

At the 2015 LMA conference in San Diego, social media and public relations experts Nancy Myrland (Myrland Marketing & Social Media) and Amy Deschodt (Weil) confirmed this assertion but with a healthy dose of postmodern digital age caution.

Their session, titled “Control Your Online Reputation and Image,” offered attendees a strategic and tactical overview of how to navigate choppy PR waters in an era where Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Tumblr, blogs, and other platforms can escalate media crises in a matter of minutes and seconds, not days and hours.

First and foremost, the panelists noted that if you don’t plan to initiate communication then you shouldn’t build social media into your communications strategies. Social media is at its most effective when it is used conversationally. To simply broadcast messages defeats its inherent power. Responding to and shaping commentary is key. Social media is dialogue.

Understanding this core assumption is vital to understanding how to respond in a crisis, let alone day-to-day brand management. According to Myrland and Deschodt, we live in a world that is increasingly accustomed to using, say, Twitter as an instantaneous means of offering complaint (or kudo).  Legal marketers, they say, disregard this cultural shift at their own peril.

The panelists offered a series of real-world examples (e.g. McDonald’s), wherein global companies found themselves in a quickly spiraling maelstrom of social media criticism. Controlling a PR nightmare is no longer about simply containing mainstream media but, arguably more crucial, tracking and responding to social media critique. What are your customers saying? How can and should you respond? When should you not respond and let a crisis run its course? These are all strategic questions that take on instantaneous tactical import. Myrland observed, “Do not ignore a bad situation that is brewing. Assess the risks and benefits, and plan your communication strategy accordingly,” with Deschodt adding, “Stay calm, distinguish what you can control, what you can only manage. Distinguish crisis versus drama.”

(Image tweeted by author from slide by Myrland)

(Image tweeted by author from slide by Myrland)

Whether in the digital realm or not, a media dust-up can erupt at any point. Some in the audience were agnostic that a law firm would be faced with the same vitriol that say a restaurant chain or bank might face.

Myrland was quick to point out that, whether via association with a client or due to the nature of a particular firm’s work, a firm could find itself with a PR target on its collective back. Deschodt added that when responding to a crisis be swift with thought, listen, and be factual. Never delete comments – the world is watching, and open and transparent dialogue is essential.

Myrland and Deschodt highly recommended hiring a seasoned social media manager who knows the ropes and that consulting the Bar on thorny issues is always advised. Build up a store of social capital (e.g. posts that add value, acknowledging and responding to commenters) before you “spend” it either for promotion or in a difficult situation, and follow your state’s social media ethical restrictions.

Social media may seem “fun” but it is not “frivolous.” It can provide incredible support to your brand recognition and to client engagement, and it can serve as a powerful tool in a crisis. However, always exercise restraint in what you solicit on social media. You may think you are opening a door, but you also are giving license to both positive and negative feedback. And if it’s something you would never say or do in person, you should not say or do it online either. As Myrland wryly observed of a culture prone to digital shaming, “Don’t pile on.  Just be nice.”

Keep Calm

Keep Calm (Image created by Myrland Marketing)

Also, there are a great number of tools out there for tracking, monitoring, and automation (e.g. HootSuite, Buffer, and the like).

The ability to monitor by key search terms (e.g. hashtag trending) is a huge advantage offered by something like HootSuite, both in monitoring the everyday impact of your branding efforts as well as chatter in the midst of a crisis.

Automation can be invaluable as well, but don’t let it detract from the need for interaction. Auto-posting content can quickly veer into blasting not conversing, so be mindful of that pitfall.

Finally, Myrland offered a handy social media rubric to follow, adding that it’s important to experiment with digital resources and to discover what works best for you and your firm. For Myrland, the seven stages of social media are as follows:

  • Preparation
  • Communication 1.0
  • Connection
  • Observation
  • Communication 2.0
  • Education
  • Collaboration (and then back to preparation)

Or, as Myrland succinctly offered, “You wouldn’t go into a conference and just start throwing business cards at people. Don’t do that online. As you might at a conference, research the people with whom you’d like to connect, offer an ice breaker, establish rapport, observe their reaction, communicate more, teach them about your firm or product, and then work together on something meaningful.”

But the best advice of all may have been when the panelists closed with the following recommendation: “Keep calm and call a legal marketer.”

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Reel Roy Reviews 2

Reel Roy Reviews 2

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital) In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

Shaggy dog biting the hand that feeds: Randy Newman at The Palladium in Carmel, Indiana

Randy Newman (All photos by Don Sexton)

Randy Newman (All photos by Don Sexton)

The first concert I ever attended (at least that I remember) was when my parents took this eighth grader to see Bobby McFerrin at the much-vaunted Holidome in Crown Point, Indiana. Just take a moment and let that sentence settle in … and try to contain your envy. Yes, some kids in the late 80s went to see Madonna or Aerosmith or MC Hammer or New Kids on the Block, but for me it was Bobby McFerrin all the way. And this was before “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” So there.

The show was in the round, with just McFerrin and maybe a piano. I can’t recall. But with his phenomenal, otherworldly musicality, he rattled (largely acapella) through two hours of amazing numbers, not to mention his complete re-creation of the entire film The Wizard of Oz, including that iconic “I’m melting!” bit.

Flash forward, nearly 30 years (sigh), and I find myself yet again riding along in the backseat of my parents’ car, on our way to see another Baby Boomer mainstay Randy Newman, this time in Indianapolis. Nothing takes you back to the feeling of being a child like riding in the backseat of your parents’ car on a long car trip – that intoxicating mix of comfort and powerlessness as you cruise down the road listening to the squabbling and the laughter, to music you don’t recognize and familial history references you do. I wouldn’t trade that feeling for anything.

Palladium

Palladium

So it is with this context that we took in Newman’s concert at Carmel, Indiana’s palatial music hall, the Palladium at the Center for Performing Arts. Such a musical hall Indiana has never before seen – a concert venue that looks like it was designed by M.C. Escher, if overdosed with Benzedrine by Liberace’s hairdresser, after visiting the Palace of Versailles or Disneyland’s “Hall of Presidents.” It really is beautiful and strange, with a byzantine entrance and egress system that made me feel like I was playing Milton Bradley’s Mousetrap.

However, there isn’t a bad seat in the house (nor a reasonably priced one), with Phantom of the Opera-esque box seats at every turn, polished cherry and marble floors, phenomenal acoustics and lighting, and super-cushy chairs.

As we sat there taking in the opulence, Newman lumbered on stage, after a loving introduction by Michael Feinstein himself. You see, Feinstein, a Columbus, Ohio native, helped get the Center established five or so years ago, alongside his husband Terrence Flannery, as a permanent monument to the Great American Songbook and to our musical theater traditions. The space also houses The Great American Songbook Foundation, which is very much worth visiting if you have some time to spare before a show there. They are great about arranging tours.

Roy and Susie waiting for the big show

Roy and Susie waiting for the big show

For over two hours, it was just Newman, his piano, and a very responsive audience. Newman isn’t quite the showman that McFerrin was/is – likely an unfair comparison since they’re such different artists, and I am judging them across a divide of 30 years. Ah well.

But what Newman lacked in showmanship, he made up in shaggy charm. He would periodically play wrong notes, stop, look up at the audience, shake his head, and say things like, “I never was a very good pianist.” Then, he would dive back into plunking out notes for many of his signature songs like “I Love L.A.,” “Short People,” “You Can Leave Your Hat On,” and “Mama Told Me Not to Come.”

A highlight for me was his performance of “Love Story (You and Me),” a Newman tune covered previously by artists as diverse as Harry Nilsson, Lena Horne, and Harry Belafonte. The song is a poignant charmer and has not aged a bit. Newman delivered it with aplomb, his frogs-and-molasses voice the perfect accent to the song’s lilting, loping melody.

Newman peppered his set-list, which pretty much seemed made up as he went along, with anecdotes about his life as a child of Los Angeles, as a child of the 60s, and as a child of a movie soundtrack dynasty (he is the nephew of acclaimed film composers Alfred and Lionel Newman and the cousin of Thomas Newman). The casual vibe he affected was on the whole delightful, though a bit more preparation and variety would have benefited the slow-going second act.

An artist of Newman’s caliber with such an accomplished history in pop, theater, and movie music is pretty much just going to do whatever the hell he wants, so that’s just fine. It is unlikely he will come this way again, so we are grateful we got the chance to see him.

Newman at piano

Newman at piano

I never realized just how many songs the man has written about cities and/or states: Baltimore, Los Angeles, Birmingham, Louisiana. And he performed them all. They follow a similar formula, with snarky verses that alternate with hypnotic repetition of said geography’s name. He worked in a wink and a nod to his Hoosier hosts, noodling through “On the Banks of the Wabash” and “Back Home Again in Indiana,” at one point looking around the beautiful Palladium and cheekily observing, “What a dump.”

His show was riddled with his caustic takes on religion and politics, government and capitalism. That was a breath of fresh air in an otherwise conservative community, so I’m sure a few spiky letters to the editor will arrive at the Indianapolis Star this week.

Yet, if he had really wanted to drive a stake through the heartland, he should have played one of my personal favorites, his theme “That’ll Do” from Babe: Pig in the City. While originally sung by Peter Gabriel, their voices are rather interchangeable at this point, so I think Newman delivering this subtle ode to kindness and to compassion and, well, to pigs would have been the perfect punctuation mark on his performance in factory farming Indiana (sad example here). We thought about shouting the title “That’ll Do” (like some rowdy concert-goers shouted “Free Bird” when I saw Tracy Chapman at the Wabash College Chapel years ago), but then we realized he might misunderstand, think we were telling him he was done for the evening, and then walk off stage.

Newman, ever the iconoclast, also worked in his shots at corporate giant Disney, letting us know in no uncertain terms, that while he has appreciated the opportunity, he hasn’t always been thrilled with the artistic limitations imposed. In a funnier bit, he commented how frustrating it is to score something such as a toy soldier falling into a drawer, adding that there is a good 20 minutes of Toy Story he’s never seen, because that particular section didn’t require any musical scoring. He then launched into a fine rendition of “You’ve Got a Friend in Me,” one of the sharpest musical moments of the evening. Again, I wouldn’t have minded hearing a slightly more obscure tune from the Toy Story saga, the beautiful and heartbreaking “When She Loved Me” (originally sung by Sarah McLachlan and written by Newman).

I guess it is a sign that I am more of a fan than I knew, having left the show enjoying what I heard but wishing for more songs than time had allowed.

Feinstein and Sexton

Feinstein and Sexton

As a final note, we realized after the show was over, that we had been seated in a box next to Michael Feinstein and his family and some potentially uber-wealthy donors. No doubt we probably would have been a bit better behaved had we known this – not putting our feet on the backs of chairs, nor taking flash photos, nor snapping our chewing gum. We are so classy. Regardless, after he finished schmoozing Daddy Warbucks and Co., Feinstein was kind and gracious enough to take a photo with us and to chat for a bit, though I suspect the cleaning crew was dispatched to our vacated box immediately.

Do take a moment to check out Feinstein’s Foundation and the great work they’re doing there, and if you feel like sending a donation to preserve our musical history and keep art alive, I’m sure it would be appreciated. If you find yourself in Indianapolis, definitely stop by for a visit or show. It’s worth it!

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Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Thanks to BroadwayWorld for this coverage – click here to view. In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

…and I got a pretty nifty t-shirt too: The Book of Mormon … Detroit engagement

Description: Film poster; Source: Wikipedia [linked]; Portion used: Film poster only; Low resolution? Sufficient resolution for illustration, but considerably lower resolution than original. Other information: Intellectual property by film studio. Non-free media use rationales: Non-free media use rationale - Article/review; Purpose of use: Used for purposes of critical commentary and illustration in an educational article about the film. The poster is used as the primary means of visual identification of this article topic. Replaceable? Protected by copyright, therefore a free use alternative won't exist.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

This isn’t going to be an honest-to-goodness, legitimate theatre review per se. Heck, I bought a bag of t-shirts and three magnets at the “Shop of Mormon,” for heaven’s sake, so you know I am not playing the dispassionate critic here.

Nonetheless, we saw the musical The Book of Mormon this afternoon at Detroit’s Fisher Theatre…and we loved it.

Crude? Yes. Offensive? Maybe. Catchy? You bet. Heartwarming? Indubitably.

The show, written by South Park‘s Trey Parker and Matt Stone and Avenue Q‘s Robert Lopez, is a loony melange with Forbidden Broadway, The Producers, The Lion King, and (oddly) The King and I in its Great White Way-loving DNA.

The performers all acquitted themselves beautifully in the well-oiled, pneumatic, theme park way that merchandise-pushing, cash cow national Broadway tours nowadays achieve effortlessly. The first act was a bit sluggish which was partly an issue with the book and partly the consequence of it being a matinee show at the end of a long run. Christopher John O’Neill as schlubby, screw-up Elder Cunningham was the standout among an exceptional cast, giving a lovable, transcendent performance in what could have been a shrill, one-note role.

As you may already know, the show is about two young Mormon missionaries who are sent to Africa to teach the people there about Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and “golden plates.” Things go awry for the duo almost immediately, and the resulting misadventures – an uneasy, yet thrilling mix of satire and homage – call into question the very nature of faith itself.

Much mock disdain may come in these twitchy, thin-skinned times of the creators setting organized religion in their snark-filled sights. Those uptight twits are missing the point. The show has a clear and refreshing point of view. Okay, there is no “one true” religion and all religious texts are inherently goofy if you think about any of their myth-filled contents too much. However, faith in something – a book, a higher power, one’s own imagination, Orlando, frogs, each other, whatever – can inspire and helps us grow, providing fulfillment and evolution.

My favorite numbers of the show – “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream” and “Joseph Smith American Moses” – highlighted this perspective with zany aplomb. Blind adherence to some notion of divine reward/punishment saps one’s spirit. Faith in ourselves and in our ability to do the right thing here and now is key to an authentic existence.

Who’d a thunk the South Park guys would turn in such an empowering, humanistic treatise disguised as a scatalogical, sophomoric romp? …and I got a pretty nifty t-shirt too!

This isn’t Disney’s first dance in Oz: Oz the Great and Powerful

Description: Film poster; Source: Wikipedia [linked]; Portion used: Film poster only; Low resolution? Sufficient resolution for illustration, but considerably lower resolution than original. Other information: Intellectual property by film studio. Non-free media use rationales: Non-free media use rationale - Article/review; Purpose of use: Used for purposes of critical commentary and illustration in an educational article about the film. The poster is used as the primary means of visual identification of this article topic. Replaceable? Protected by copyright, therefore a free use alternative won't exist.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

So I have always loved The Wizard of Oz. Not just the 1939 MGM classic film, but all of the books and the various spin-offs/prequels/sequels/reboots/homages/ rip-offs over the years. I even adore Sidney Lumet’s infamous box office disaster The Wiz.

And, now, we have the latest in a long line: Disney’s Oz the Great and Powerful. This isn’t Disney’s first dance in Oz. The company, including Walt himself, has rather famously circled the property since the days of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Most notably, Disney tried to create a movie Oz franchise nearly 30 years ago with the dark and kinda creepy Return to Oz, a movie I also really liked, given its thematic commitment to L. Frank Baum’s original books. But it too was box office poison. (In fact, if I recall, the original Wizard of Oz was pretty tepidly received in its day.)

So how will this James Franco tentpole fair? Disney seems to have its marketing machine in high gear (though that didn’t much help last year’s John Carter) and the subject matter and approach align well with other recent hits like Tim Burton’s bloated-but-uber-successful Alice in Wonderland. I’m guessing this may be the first Oz film to be an unequivocal box office smash in its original run.

Too bad it’s just not a better film.

I enjoyed a lot of it, but the whole thing feels trapped in a CGI/soundstage bubble. There’s just not enough genuine humor, wit, or tension to make it feel like anything but a mammoth cash grab from the Disney empire.

(Note: theme park competitor Universal owns the rights to Broadway musical Wicked, which takes a similar “what happened before Dorothy got there approach.” I couldn’t help reflecting that this was Disney’s attempt to get their version of the story told first, make buckets o’ cash, and then get cracking on some new animatronic theme park attractions before Universal even leaves the starting blocks. Hmmmm…)

Rachel Weisz as one of the three witches of Oz is the only one who seems to be having any fun at all. I’m not a fan, but she gives her Evanora a nice zippy crackle that the rest of the film lacks. James Franco is in fully charmy/smarmy “Franco!” mode, and he’s perfectly serviceable. Mila Kunis alas seems to sleepwalk through her rather pivotal turn as Evanora’s sister – I won’t spoil the surprise, though I understand the merchandise from the Disney Store already has. And Michelle Williams as Glinda has a cute moment or two but mostly seems to be channeling a fluffier version of her uncanny Marilyn Monroe impersonation from My Week with Marilyn.

That is a whole mess of Oscar winners/nominees for this enterprise to be as flat as it is. However, there are a couple of reasonably cute CGI sidekicks – China Girl and a flying monkey named Fenley. They get the best lines but unfortunately seem like refugees from the inevitable Wii U video game to come.

Director Sam Raimi, unfortunately left most traces of his adventurous and sardonic wit with the Spider-Man franchise, and this overly long film suffers for it.  Seriously, cut 20 minutes from this behemoth and there would have been a really good Wonderful World of Disney TV movie in there. Somewhere.

Yes, the movie will make a lot of moolah. Some people may even enjoy it…I will say the exciting conclusion almost made me forget how bored I was by the first 90 minutes of set up. And I daresay we won’t have to wait another 30 years for Disney’s next bite at the Oz apple. Sigh.

Deja vu all over again: Lincoln

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Whether or not Steven Spielberg intended his latest film Lincoln to serve as a finely crafted allegory for our contentiously political times, it very much is one. The movie succeeds on multiple levels, not only allegorical but also as instructively engaging historical psychodrama and crackerjack cinematic entertainment.

Daniel Day-Lewis as the titular American president is warm yet flinty and infinitely watchable in yet another amazingly chameleonic performance in his long and storied career. He manages to evade the trap of most historical biopics – he is neither overly reverential nor artistically self-indulgent. And he is most assuredly not some wax figure in Disneyland’s “Hall of Presidents.”

Day-Lewis’ Abraham Lincoln is a fully realized, at times lovable, always affecting flesh-and-blood creation. I challenge anyone to read about Lincoln after watching this movie and NOT hear Day-Lewis’ voice in your head or visualize the mischievous, twinkly fire in his eyes.

The film is set against the backdrop of the Civil War (no shock there) and focuses on the political machinations required to have the 13th Amendment pass the House of Representatives, where it has been stuck for the better part of a year. Lincoln realizes that, if the Civil War ends before the Amendment’s passage, he might not ever amend the Constitution to prevent slavery forevermore.

Needless to say, Beltway (was it called the “Beltway” in those days?) backstabbing and hijinks ensue, and anyone who has lived in America in the past twelve years will reflect  “the more things change…the more they stay the same.” Neither Spielberg nor screenwriter Tony Kushner proselytize (though there is speechifyin’-a-plenty) but the ugliness of watching entitled white dudes debating the finer points of social issues for which they have no real skin in the game is like deja vu all over again.

The supporting cast is a who’s who of America’s finest players, from always delightful David Strathairn to a gonzo-fun James Spader who seems to be channeling Robert Downey, Jr., at his most drug-addled. Lee Pace of ABC’s short-lived Pushing Daisies is fun as a posturing, preening Congressman opposed to the Amendment, and Jackie Earle Haley continues his run of great late-career performances as the peace-seeking Confederate Veep, literally left cooling his heals on a riverboat as Lincoln pushes the Amendment through.

Sally Field as Mary Todd-Lincoln is adequate, and I’m not sure if her part was a bit underwritten or if I have just seen her return to the same actorly well a few too many times. Kushner seems to be channeling a postmodern perspective on the Lincolns’ marriage/family through every bit of Field’s dialogue, and she does yeoman’s work making it sound natural but at times it still seems stilted.

The film also suffers from about four endings too many. We know what happens to Lincoln in the weeks and months following the Amendment’s passage, and, trying to cram all of that detail into what is more-or-less an extended diorama-like montage at the film’s conclusion detracts. And, of course, Spielberg can’t help but include his trademark fairy tale mythologizing here and there – it is ok, but the film is so strong otherwise that I could have done without those vintage touches.

But the best moments of the film come at the hands of two old pros who don’t share a minute of screen time: Tommy Lee Jones as Abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens and Jared Harris as Ulysses S. Grant. Both bring gravitas and pixie dust to their roles, more than holding their own with Day-Lewis. Their characters leap from the pages of history books and very quickly feel like people you have known personally for years. Absolutely remarkable work here.